A week ago, President Donald Trump declared America’s opiate problem a “national public health emergency.”
This is his administration’s first concrete action on this ongoing, man-made disaster with a profit motive that is killing more people per year than AIDS did at its peak in the 1990s and which is disproportionately affecting those areas of the country that elected him worst.
With his trademark eloquence, Trump declared the opiate problem “the worst drug crisis in American history and even, if you really think about it, world history.”
This was about the only thing he got right.
Otherwise, the all-consuming cluelessness (at the very best of times; we are right to ask if this isn’t really just yet another opportunity for blatant grift) with which he’s conducted his presidency was on full display.
Early Promise, Late Delivery
Doing something about opiates is one of Trump’s oldest (and crassest) promises, in the same realm as building a monument to nativism, racism and rank ignorance along our border with Mexico.
The mere fact alone that it took nine full months of the Trump presidency to take action on something that killed 59,000 people last year and will kill more than 60,000 this year—if the steady trend we’re on isn’t suddenly halted—is sign enough of his administration’s clinical disinterest.
Context: More Americans died in 2016 from drug overdoses than were killed in the Vietnam War, the conflict Donald Trump dodged because of something wrong with one of his feet; which one, he can’t recall. Opiates kill more Americans in less than two months than the total number of Americans who died in the Iraq War and 9/11, combined.
Yet for Team Trump, removing Americans from their jobs and classrooms and deporting them to countries they have never called home, banning transgender people from the military and stoking Islamophobia—that is, pandering to his white-nationalist, meme-making base—were all bigger priorities. This is a nice way of saying he does not give a fuck. Why should he?
Trump’s lack of compassion and bird-like inability to focus on anything that does not concern himself for longer than it takes to compose a tweet is well-documented. And here it was again: Trump trotted out the example of his brother Fred, who died from alcoholism in 1981, as proof positive that opiates can be beaten.
“He had a problem with alcohol, and he would tell me, ‘Don’t drink, don’t drink,’’ the president said. “To this day, I’ve never had a drink, and I have no longing for it. I have no interest in it.”
Is there a common denominator between government and for-profit companies drowning poor, working-class areas with prescription pharmaceuticals, and a wealthy scion of a real-estate investor’s choice to stay away from Scotch? The fuck.
A child could see there isn’t. Trump could not.
About the only other head-smackingly stupid thing Trump could have done before calling it a day and going back to watch Fox and Friends is tell Americans to just say no to drugs… and he did that, too, saying that some kind of dissuasion campaign will make the difference. D.A.R.E., but for after your friends and family have already died.
Trump describes a latter-day version of the Just Say No campaign as a key to discouraging a new generation of opioid addicts.
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) October 26, 2017
Even this long-delayed demi-measure stops well short of what his own administration had asked for. The “President’s commission” on opiates, headed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who oversaw one of the biggest spikes in overdose deaths in the country in his own state, asked Trump to declare a “national emergency,” like the ones declared in storm-ravaged Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico.
This is the official designation applied to fucked-up situations by the government, which can then do things like spend more money and temporarily suspend bureaucratic regulations in order to fix it, quickly and permanently. Trump would be able to shuffle money around from worthless or pointless tasks, like a concrete wall, and spend it instead on trying to make sure more Americans don’t die preventable deaths.
Trump did not do that.
A National Public Health Emergency
Instead, he declared the plague of overdose deaths a “national public health emergency.”
This means there is no extra funding immediately available—we’ll have to rely on the munificence of Congress for that, the same Congress where a sizable minority of members just spent months trying to take basic healthcare away from millions of Americans.
As of now, the only help on the way to opiate-ravaged corners of America are grants for some extra drug treatment, grants for workers who’ve lost their jobs thanks to a drug problem and “expanded access to telemedicine services” to allow doctors to… prescribe other pharmaceuticals.
This is less even than what Trump promised us in August, when he (verbally) declared this cataclysm a “national emergency” without signing or doing anything. Yes: Donald Trump found a way to officially downplay the country’s biggest public-health crisis.
This is disappointing and infuriating.
It should not be surprising. Forget for a second what Trump says, and look at what he does. Appoint a darling of the pharmaceutical industry to be his drug czar. Appoint another darling of the pharmaceutical industry to run the Department of Health and Human Services—and when one withdraws his nomination for being an architect of the opiate crisis and when the other resigns because he used his official jet as a personal Gulfstream, leave both posts unfilled.
Again: Donald Trump has a drug-fueled health crisis, and he has no drug czar and no health secretary.
He has an attorney general repeating exploded Ronald Reagan talking points, whose motive is to wage a Ronald Reagan-like drug war so that he can prevent more black and brown people from exercising their full rights as citizens.
He’s telling us with a straight face that he’ll get the trains to run on time without bothering to hire a conductor or an engineer.
Final Hit: Is Donald Trump Serious About Opiates?
The opioid crisis is a structural problem that shows us everything that’s wrong with our system. It’s not new. Remember the meth crisis, the meth epidemic? Similar story, different drug—far worse consequences.
Does Trump get that? Are you joking?
Opiates have been a problem in inner cities for decades—places where schools are bad, jobs are nonexistent or bad, and the prison pipeline flows like toxic water in Flint. Only in the past 15 years, when greed got so bad that white people started dying, did it become a crisis—and look. Now rural America has the same problems as the inner cities. How do you fix that?
Gosh, I don’t know—job training. Or jobs. Trump keeps saying what shitty shape our infrastructure is in, and it is. You could solve both with a government initiative. What do they call that? A stimulus, I think. Might be nice.
“We can be the generation that ends the opioid epidemic,” Trump said. “We can do it.”
This is possible, only because we were the generation that started it—just as we were the generation that started the Iraq War and refused to do anything about climate change.
We are also the generation that elected Donald Trump. This is to say many more people are going to die before things get better. If they ever do.